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Discovering the UniverseDiscovering the Universe: The Story of Astronomy, Paul Murdin (Andre Deutsch 2014)

First published in 2011 as Mapping the Universe, this is a well-written, well-illustrated history of astronomy that begins in the Stone Age and ends with the Hubble Space Telescope and Large Hadron Collider. The photographs will stimulate your eyes as the text stimulates your mind. The universe is a big place and big things happen there, like gamma-ray bursts (GRBs):

Until 1997, astronomers didn’t know whether GRBs originated in some sort of explosions on the edge of our solar system, around our Galaxy, or far away. Two examples proved that the explosions occur the edge of the observable Universe. For their duration of a few seconds, the bursts had been over a million times brighter than their parent galaxy, the biggest bangs since the Big Bang. (ch. 17, “Exploding Stars”, pg. 87)

Ptolemy, Galileo and Newton would all be astonished by the technology that allows modern astronomers to study phenomena like gamma-ray bursts, but one thing has remained constant: the importance of mathematics and measurement in studying the sky. The story of astronomy is not just about seeing further and clearer, but also of measuring better and mathematizing more powerfully. Ptolemy’s geocentric universe entailed the arbitrary complexity of epicycles on epicycles, to explain how the planets sometimes seemed to move backwards against the stars. Then Copernicus resurrected the ancient Greek hypothesis of a heliocentric universe.

Back cover

Back cover


Planetary retrogression became easier to explain. Other hypotheses, like the steady state universe and Kepler’s planetary Platonic solids, haven’t proved successful, but data don’t explain themselves and astronomers have to be adventurous in mind, if not usually in body. This book contains the big names, the big sights and the big mysteries that are still awaiting explanation. More big names, sights and mysteries are on their way.

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Front cover of The Cosmic Gallery by Giles Sparrow
The Cosmic Gallery: The Most Beautiful Images of the Universe, Giles Sparrow (Quercus 2013)

I’ve seen some of the images here on-line, but they’re better in a book. The resolution is higher and books satisfy the sense of touch and even the sense of smell in a way electronic media don’t and won’t for some time. You can leaf through The Cosmic Gallery, twist and turn the book as you please and enjoy the contrast between the ultra-modern photographs and the ancient way they are presented. The word “book” may be related to “beech”, because beeches have detachable bark that’s easy to write on. So The Cosmic Gallery combines past and present – and in more ways than one. The gorgeous star-fields here are records of not just of prehistory but of pre-humanity, because the light that made them had been travelling for millions of years when it was captured by human technology.

Some of star-photographs are so colourful and so full of grandeur, distance and antiquity that you can feel them growing like cathedrals in your head as you look at them. But their visual power isn’t accidental. These images aren’t intended purely as objective scientific records:

This book is in many ways a celebration of these amazing technological advances [in photography and computing] that have lately transformed our understanding of the universe. And yet we should not forget that the images on these pages are just as much a product of human artistry as the cave-paintings of Lascaux or the drawings of Lord Rosse [an Irish astronomer who made famous drawings of galaxies in the mid-nineteenth century]. Not only are these technical achievements an art in their own right, but also the representation of data gathered by a giant telescope or distant spacecraft is still ultimately a matter of human choice. Many of the images here make use of false or representative colours to highlight certain wavelengths or certain structures, or to bring entire invisible worlds within the narrow limits of our perception. (Introduction, pg. 11)

The star-photos are the most awe-inspiring and beautiful in the book. Some of the images from the solar system, being nearer to home and closer to the human scale, are almost domestic by comparison. But one of them reminds you of the vast scale of the solar system too: a now-famous shot of Saturn and its intricate halo of rings, taken by the Cassini probe as it looked sunward (pp. 148-9). To the left, “just inside the G ring at the ten o’clock position”, is a “pale blue dot”, easy to overlook, easy to ignore amid the splendour of the Saturnian rings. The dot is a planet called Earth, scene for all the horrors and heights of mankind. It’s a powerful reminder of how small we are even on a much-less-than-cosmic scale. But as C.S. Lewis pointed out: the ability to feel small is possible only to big creatures. Neither ants nor elephants are awed by the size, complexity and age of the universe, because neither ants nor elephants can appreciate them.

Nor can they appreciate the mathematics that permeates the universe and that ultimately is the universe. The patterns here are sometimes huge and spectacular, but the forces that shape dunes on Mar (pg. 86, 174) are shaping dunes on Earth too. And the unpredictability of a water-thread, falling, twisting and sputtering from a half-closed tap, is seen in Saturn’s chaotic satellite Hyperion, which has “no set rotation period, or even axis of rotation” (pg. 168). The swirl of colours in a close-up of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot (pp. 76-7) reminds me of swirling paint in a Francis Bacon; the “writhing mass of cells and tendrils” in sunspots (pg. 172) might almost be competing colonies of bacteria in a Petri dish, or even melted cheese on a pizza. From fire to ice, from dust to gas, from clouds to ultra-violet light, from sun-spots to melted cheese: Mathematica Magistra Mundi, Mathematics the Mistress of the World, oversees it all.

She also oversees the brains of the men – and it has been overwhelmingly men – responsible for designing and building the technology that has captured these images and brought them to the coffee-tables of the world. If we are here to go, as Brion Gysin claimed, then this book presents the looks before the leaps.

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